Until late in the 19th cent., American fighters established their own rules, which were few. Early matches, some of them free-for-alls, featured biting and gouging as well as punching. In most instances they were also illegal. In 1888, John L. Sullivan, a bare-knuckle champion and America's first sports celebrity, won a clandestine 75-round match.
New York legalized boxing in 1896, and other states soon followed suit. Although the reign (1910–15) of the first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, disturbed the segregated society of the time, and although many continued to question boxing's social purpose, its inclusion in the Olympic games in 1904, its use for military training in World War I, its emergence as a source of discipline for youth, its regulation by state commissions, and its suggestion of national vitality strengthened its claims to legitimacy and bolstered its popularity through the 1920s and 30s. Heavyweight (over 190 lb/86.3 kg) champions Jack Dempsey (1919–26) and Joe Louis (1937–49) were national heroes, Louis becoming one of the first black athletes to gain wide popularity.
Since World War II, boxing has proceeded amid corruption and, at times, chaos. Rising admission prices, restriction of title fights to closed-circuit television, the proliferation of organizations claiming to sanction fights and proclaim champions, financial scandals, ring injuries and deaths, monopolistic practices by promoters, and claims of exploitation of lower-class fighters have threatened its appeal, yet the sport continues to attract huge audiences and investment. Great fighters like Muhammad Ali elicit admiration and fascination, while controversy surrounds others like the repeatedly imprisoned Mike Tyson.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.